Columns

Dr Peter David Phillips — the other side

BY PAUL BUCHANAN

Sunday, July 08, 2018

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On the night of the People's National Party's (PNP) 1972 devastating 37-16 victory over the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), with the dashing Michael 'Joshua' Manley basking in national adoration, a young reporter with a disrespectful smirk, asked outgoing Prime Minister Hugh Shearer if the JLP could recover as a viable party. The tall Hugh Lawson Shearer looked down, met the reporter's eyes fully and offered an irrefutable truth:“Young man, no Government lasts forever.”

The PNP did not. Neither did the JLP with its even more crushing 51-9 victory in 1980. The JLP with its meagre 33-30 seats majority needs to heed Shearer's admonition, but importantly not a few sceptics in the PNP as well.

In his earlier coming, the uncertain Andrew Holness of 2010-2011, concerned with the shifting sands of political fortunes and the peoples fiercely guarded demand for accountability, removed the powerful Mike Henry for only perceptions of impropriety in the implementation of the JDIP programme. The now more confident Andrew Holness of 2016-2018 has been able to exploit a growing national apathy to surmount the mounting pile of irregularities and misappropriations, complementing his season of unkept promises. He has taken his bets on the public's aversion to things political, played out as 'a plague on both houses' and the 'this too shall pass' syndrome, winning each time.

For certain, the light posts have not been returned to Epsom in South East St Mary, and the OCG findings on the politically motivated $900 million de-bushing programme prior to the South East St Mary by-election, have not elicited more than a passing comment. Unbelievably also, the situation is the same with the Firearm Licensing Authority irregularities, of which there has been no transparent and summary report. Then too, there is the patently obvious impropriety of the still-undelivered motorcars against the Ministry of National Security's payment of $237 million, which has unbelievably gone to mediation, without notice. To compound this and many other instances of malpractices, the promised $18,000 rebate was not only chopped up with the skill of a happy butcher, yielding negligible benefits to the recipients with the dollar declining, but more critically, led to the exhaustion of the hedge fund left by the PNP, to nullify potential increases in oil prices, which has now become a reality. And still no alarms.

Despite all this, on the morning after that infamous Twitter poll, among the celebrating JLP were Comrades snarling everywhere: “You see weh Peter do again?”. While that Twitter faux pas not only spoke to his support team's failure to counter the JLP's dominance of social media and thereby anticipate their quick response but also lost in that gifted sideshow, was the baselessness of the poll result in our unending season of glitz, superficiality and abnormality. A sideshow it clearly became, which could not last and did not. After all, how could the masses, the poor be better off with an unmoved minimum wage, pensioners' income ravaged from creeping price increases and growth at a sluggish to flat .05 per cent down from the 1.4 per cent that Peter Phillips left it in 2016.

In truth, there is clear disappointment with his leadership, as many Comrades demoralised by the unexpected 2016 defeat and the daily JLP misdeeds now piling up without any noticeable PNP uptick, have become even more restless and vocal. But while we await Dr Phillips' 'line in the sand' intervention on the Petrojam saga and his resultant caveats to the JLP, there is need to understand the genesis of his seeming indecisiveness. Ascending to the PNP's throne without his own mandate, Peter Phillips, unlike any other party leader before him, has had to engender support from a divided national executive and senior party members, many of whom have pretentions to party leadership or pledged support to others. Hence there is no noticeable push back, from that quarter against the internal and external critics of his leadership style.

For certain, the leadership ambitions of Peter Bunting and Phillip Paulwell, though stalled, have not been disavowed. Neither can the silent interest of Dr Wykeham McNeill or the growing popularity of Mark Golding be disregarded. Having challenged Portia Simpson Miller twice, there are no conventions outside the party's constitution that would frown on a leadership contest. Timing and a window of opportunity are the only masters. Peter Phillips understands this, despite assurances of loyalty that may have been given. As a consequence, he must make adjustments and concessions with support inadequacies where necessary, as he too bides his time to consolidate power.

Other factors in the travails of his leadership relate to the clear, if not urgent necessity to rebuild party structures, reinvigorate its research and communication capacity, counter the JLP's social media strategy, and simplify its message to attract the support of the poor, the working class and young people. Above all, there is the towering need to present a clear, viable, dramatic and winning alternative to the JLP that will precipitate significant funding to the precariously indebted party — a tall order to which Dr Phillips has been mightily engaged but severely handicapped by the absence of strong, capable regional leaders that once littered the PNP's landscape. Gone too are the experienced communication practitioners like Corina Meeks, Daphne Innerarity, Hartley Neita, Ralston Smith and Claude Robinson. A tall order indeed!

But beyond party renewal, his way has not been helped by a detrimental social anomaly, the pervading lack of national outrage for immorality and egregious wrongs. At the top of the pile of the JLP sins for which there have been no convincing demands for ministerial accountability and resignation, is the Cornwall Regional Hospital debacle. Notwithstanding the excellence and depth of Gordon Robinson's serialised expose' or the unvarnished facts powerfully presented by Canute Thompson on that troubled institution, the nation has been literally unmoved.

There will be many stories told of the wasted lives of the over 100 staff members exposed through arrogance and procrastination, to the harmful moulds at CRH but there can be none more tragic than the case of Phillipa Alexis Eloise Williams, a brilliant young graduate of Immaculate Conception High High School and the UWI Medical School, who true to her character and inner-city experiences in Central Kingston sought to do her internship in the troubled cauldron of St James — a volunteer for almost every social call. Unknowingly exposed in that poisonous environment, she stood no chance, her too-brief life of goodness ended by an uncaring world.

But even that grave instance of inhumanity and national apathy has been exceeded by the cold silence that has greeted the deaths of 649 babies (neonates), a barometer of our lost sense of outrage. Yes, the figure is correct, six hundred and forty-nine babies dead between 2016-2017, a few of them eaten by dogs. No national cry, no accountability. Further, we all remember the strident calls by Daryl Vaz and others for Dr Fenton Ferguson's resignation over the deaths of 19 babies (neonates), a figure well below the worldwide average for neonate deaths per country. Again, no national outrage, no ministerial accountability. In fact, the responsible minister for the CRH dereliction was recently deemed the most effective Cabinet minister in the present Government. That is the vulgar double standard of civil society that Dr Peter Phillips has had to contend with.

Fortunately, there is another side to Dr Phillips' journey. Born to accomplished educators, the late Dr Aubrey Phillips and Thelma Phillips, Peter Phillips exudes the spirit of noblesse oblige in his DNA. This sense of service to country and the upliftment of the less fortunate have been part of his lifelong pursuits. Men with that affliction of selflessness often find greater satisfaction in public accomplishment than private wealth. To prepare himself for public service, he enhanced his BSc in economics from UWI, with a PhD in political economy at the State University of New York. Before that he would have gained some notoriety as a Rastaman who left his middleclass background to trek the inner-city of Kingston, listening to the call of the streets and the desperate cries of the marginalised. After academia, his sojourn would find him in profitable apprenticeship with the supreme champion of social good — Michael Manley.

On his return to power in 1989, Michael Manley assigned the young Phillips a number of special projects critical to national upliftment and the betterment of the poor: obtaining funding through the San Jose Accord as coordinator of the Portmore Housing Project and the establishment of MIDA. Then came the establishment of Operation Pride under P J Patterson, followed by an impressive list of accomplishments on his elevation to Cabinet: the Drugs for the Elderly programme and the rebuilding of the KPH at the Ministry of Health; the clean-up of the disgraceful 'patty pan' transport system at Transport and Works; Operation King Fish at National Security and the successful fiscal consolidation programme at the Ministry of Finance.

Now at the centre, his accumulated years have given him an enlarged girth, as a consequence of which he doesn't dance well, at least not with the dexterity of Andrew Holness, but that is unimportant. As a nation we have danced too long and too much. The music is over. His steady plodding tone, more professorial than oratorical, does not excite but reassures. As a country, we have over-indulged in flowery, unkept promises and empty rhetoric, reaping half a century of negative to marginal growth. The leaders of industry and the wider public are fully aware that Peter Phillips is not of that ilk. Having succeeded in all his ministerial assignments, he needs no paid activist to inflate his cause or to denigrate others. His civility, decency and capacity to turn around this country are unquestioned.

He offers us a fresh start on the sure economic platform he carved out from the ruins of 2011, now grown shaky with the new finance minister's premature utterances about leaving the IMF, in the face of increasing oil prices and a declining dollar, which surely points to balance of payments trepidations. Having saved the nation from the scourge of cocaine and the drug barons, he's fully aware of the punitive steps that must attend any crime plan. But he's also acutely aware that an effective crime plan must be organically linked to growth, based on targeted engagement of our fields of neglect and criminality, the vast inner cities where ironically, the untapped potential of our human resources must be unearthed.

Enhanced by new parenting initiatives and revolutionary early childhood education programmes, our knowledge based sector will be expanded. Apart from the refreshing new deal for agriculture and rural development presented by Dr Ferguson, his shadow minister, Peter Phillips understands also, that effective incentives must be put in place to not only attract significant investments in our depressed areas but also enlightened policies to stop 'the brain drain', which has seen our best minds lost to developed countries. This will ensure that our brilliant high school and university graduates, along with creative minds recruited from the inner cities, will be available to fashion, among other strategies, a software research and development culture, the products of which will challenge the world with the Jamaican exceptionalism, providing value-added breakthrough to exponential growth.

Peter Phillips' team has now begun to shine. He has with him two of Campion College's finest products: the cerebral Mark Golding and the sharp acumen of Peter Bunting. Then, among others, there is Phillip Paulwell, the Excelsior man who brought us kicking into the computer age while making telecommunications accessible to the masses; Dr Fenton Ferguson, cited by leaders of our medical fraternity as the most effective health minister of our time; the relentless Fitz Jackson; the experienced Horace Dalley; backed up by Ronald Thwaites, a font of knowledge overseeing education.

The country now needs to step back and understand the deliberate path to its redemption being offered by the best finance minister modern Jamaica has known, Dr Peter David Phillips, Leader of the Opposition.

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